Assuming Nicola Sturgeon isn't about to make the dreadful mistake of substantively changing the SNP's policy on an independence referendum (and, touch wood, that worry has receded somewhat after Ian Blackford's strong restatement of the policy in the Commons the other day), it's fair to say that the general election result has only made a referendum less likely to the extent that it's made a soft Brexit a little more likely. If, as the likes of Michael Portillo predict, Britain now remains in the single market, there will be no need for a referendum because Ms Sturgeon's red line won't have been crossed. But if, as seems much more probable, we're still heading towards a 'bespoke red white and blue Brexit' that falls well short of single market membership, the logic and mandate for a referendum will be inescapable. The Tories clearly want to block any vote from taking place before 2021, but they were saying much the same thing (albeit in a somewhat cagier fashion) even before the election.
So the big question remains exactly the same as it was a couple of months ago : if a referendum becomes necessary, and if the Tory government says no, what then? We've been told repeatedly that Nicola Sturgeon is not attracted to the idea of a consultative referendum held without the granting of a Section 30 order by Westminster. That seems odd, because Alex Salmond was preparing the ground for exactly that sort of referendum in his early years as First Minister, at a time when Ms Sturgeon was his deputy. It would be a fully legal referendum, not a 'wildcat vote' as STV once described it, because in order for it to happen the lawyers would have to successfully frame the legislation in such a way that the Presiding Officer would certify it as being within the parliament's powers. It might also have to survive a legal challenge. If it proved possible to reach that point, it's not hard to see the attractions -
1) The referendum would go ahead without the SNP having to cross any further electoral hurdles. Leader-writers in the Observer would be able to splutter indignantly to their hearts' content about the independence debate being "settled", but it wouldn't make any difference. The mandate for a referendum was received in the Holyrood election last spring, and the SNP's term of office still has almost four years to run.
2) As soon as a consultative referendum becomes a reality, the unionist parties will be faced with a monumental strategic dilemma. They'll either have to campaign full-bloodedly for a No vote, or boycott the referendum completely. If they do campaign, they'll effectively acknowledge the legitimacy of the vote, thus rendering the denial of a Section 30 order completely pointless.
3) If, on the other hand, there is a unionist boycott, a Yes majority will become inevitable, and the only task for the Yes campaign will be to produce a turnout on their own side that at least makes it look plausible that the victory could still have been won without the boycott. (It shouldn't be forgotten that Strathclyde Regional Council's consultative referendum on the water industry in 1994 stunned everyone with a turnout of more than 70%, in spite of an effective Tory boycott - the theory before the vote was that anything in the 40s would be decent enough.) OK, the unionists will brand the result illegitimate, but they'll be on a lot weaker ground than before - instead of arguing that the No vote in 2014 has settled everything, they'll be arguing that a much more recent Yes vote hasn't settled anything at all. We might even end up with the ultimate role reversal of the SNP fighting the 2021 Holyrood election on the basis that Indyref 3 isn't wanted or needed, and that the opposition parties should accept the result of Indyref 2 and move on.
Sounds like a win/win to me.
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